This American Life: Evelyn Simonowitz Lieberman, ’66

White House deputy chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. Adviser to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Press secretary to Senator Joseph Biden. Chief operating officer of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

The Honorable Evelyn Simonowitz Lieberman, ’66, has risen to levels in government not seen by any other Buffalo State graduate. How did she get there?

That’s the wonderful part of this story.

Her Mother’s Advice

Back in the early 1960s, many parents were still sending their daughters off to college, as the old joke goes, to get their M.R.S. degrees.

You know, M-R-S. As in “Mrs.” As in married.

It’s true—many parents did recommend that traditional path for their daughters. But not Rose
Simonowitz.

No, when Rose’s only daughter ventured away from Long Beach in Nassau County, New York, in the fall of 1962 to enroll at Buffalo State, she offered a different kind of advice: Don’t get married right away. Live your own life first. Then find your best friend and get married when you’re 35.

“My mother was very unconventional,” laughed Evelyn Simonowitz Lieberman, who currently serves as director of communications and external affairs at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. “Her advice was pretty radical for the time.”

Rose’s live-your-own-life-first philosophy wasn’t the flippant talk of a spirited society girl. It was the precious pearl of wisdom formed by regret over her own lost youth. As a young girl, Rose accompanied her Russian-born mother and brother and sister back to the motherland to visit family. Victims of bad timing, they were stranded there for seven years while World War I and the Russian Revolution raged on. When the four finally made it back to Ellis Island, they were admitted immediately thanks to their American citizenship.

But life was not easy upon their return. Rose would marry a man named Jack, born in Russia, who was a special education teacher (when special education was still a new field) and a Juilliard-trained cantor. The couple had three children—two boys, then Evelyn— but separated when Evelyn was young.

“We didn’t have money, but I didn’t know that we didn’t have money. We were like everyone else in the neighborhood,” Lieberman remembered. “My mother worked many jobs. She worked hard. At one point, she was a laundress at a camp so that my two brothers and I could go to that camp. We lived near my grandmother and aunt and always had family around to help.”

The sacrifices that her mother made left a lasting impression on Evelyn.

“My mother and grandmother definitely knew that America was a place of opportunity, of promise, of freedom,” said Lieberman. “They were very strong women—way ahead of their time, but bound by circumstance.”

And they both wanted something more for Evelyn.

College Days

Thinking back, Lieberman admits that she wasn’t the most imaginative person as she entered college. She didn’t yet have a perspective that went beyond the conventional.

“Buffalo State was, in one sense, a safe choice for me. I don’t think that I necessarily wanted to be a teacher, but teaching was a profession that women could excel in, and Buffalo State was the best place in the state to go to become a teacher,” said Lieberman. “In fact, I remember telling my mother that teaching was something I could always fall back on and she said, ‘Something to fall back on? You’re 18 years old! You don’t need something to fall back on yet!’”

Although admittedly an average student, Lieberman had an uncommon intellect and an intense desire—instilled in her by her mother—to help make the world a better place. Once on campus, Lieberman began to stretch her thinking and envision her future.

“I loved Buffalo State—the people, the classes,” said Lieberman. “Fraser Drew, in particular, was a beacon for so many of us.”

Lieberman was among the legions of students inspired by the captivating English professor. Drew didn’t just talk about the assigned reading—he talked about Literature, with a capital L. He read words from the likes of Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway and Langston Hughes—words that moved you, that stirred emotion, that made you want to be a better person.

With that inspiration and her education degree from Buffalo State in hand, Lieberman secured a position teaching senior English classes at Hicksville High School in Hicksville, New York, a little hamlet within the town of Oyster Bay in Nassau County.

Down a Different Path

After teaching for four years in Hicksville—during which time she ignored her mother’s advice and got married before age 35—Evelyn joined her then-husband in a move to Washington, D.C.

She worked as a substitute teacher for the first few months after their arrival in the nation’s capital, but didn’t enjoy being a stand-in in someone else’s classroom or a stay-at-home wife. So, she found work in the library at Georgetown University. Interestingly, this turn down a different career path didn’t unsettle her. In fact, she found it invigorating. She established connections with new groups of people, and those connections opened doors to a series of new opportunities.

She accepted a position in public relations with the Housing Opportunities Council, which led to a similar position with the National Urban Coalition, which led to her post as director of public affairs for the Children’s Defense Fund.

The Children’s Defense Fund, the premier American child advocacy and research group, had been founded in 1973 by Marian Wright Edelman as a voice for poor, minority, and disabled children. It was—and still is—a powerhouse organization.

Edelman possessed a spectacular vita—a law degree from Yale, the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, an NAACP attorney representing activists during the Freedom Summer of 1964, an assistant to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his Poor People’s Campaign, and on and on. Lieberman was ecstatic to be able to work for, and learn from, one of the top female leaders of the civil rights movement.

“Marian Edelman was a great mentor for me,” said Lieberman, who by then had remarried, to Edward Lieberman, an attorney who was her best friend, by the age of 35 (just as her mother had advised). “Working with her on children’s issues taught me a lot about politics and advocacy at both the federal and state levels. And Hillary Clinton was on the board of the Children’s Defense Fund. That’s how we met. We had a group of very strong women doing very strong work.”

The connection between teaching and communications work was not lost on Lieberman. “Preparing to be a teacher is very helpful for any career,” she said. “You learn how to talk in front of a group. It’s great preparation for addressing a large audience—sometimes a hostile audience—and you learn how to take criticism. You learn how to present with enthusiasm —enthusiasm is contagious. I learned all of that at Buffalo State, and it has been very useful in my life.”

On the Hill and in the White House

In 1988, Lieberman made the leap into government service by taking on the sizable task of serving as press secretary for then-senator and now vice president Joseph Biden, the affable and influential statesman, who by that time had already been in the United States Senate for 15 years and was a constant focus of media attention.

Like many others before her and many others since, Lieberman was drawn to government work by the American ideal of public service—of being useful and helpful in the operation of our great democracy. She quickly learned that government operations can sometimes be less than ideal, but that they were well worth the investment of her time and talent.

“When I worked for Joe Biden, he told me about his old conference table in the Senate, where members of different stripes would sit around and talk out of the public eye, just developing friendships. They knew each other personally, and were thoughtful, and listened to each other. They compromised for the greater good,” she said. “There’s less socializing today. Partisanship has made things so divisive. Still, I think that ideal still exists—people do come to Washington to try to make a difference.”

When Bill Clinton took office as president in 1993, Lieberman was asked to join the White House staff as assistant to the chief of staff in the Office of the First Lady. This reunited her with Hillary Clinton. Lieberman loved working at the White House right from the beginning. “It was exhilarating, exhausting, exciting,” she said. “Every day, you knew why you were there and you knew why it was important.”

She earned promotions to deputy assistant to the president and White House deputy press secretary for operations and, in 1996, was named assistant to the president and White House deputy chief of staff. She will go down in United States history as the first woman to hold that title.

Upon appointing her to the post, President Bill Clinton said, “Evelyn Lieberman has already served this administration with excellence. Her tenacity, wit, and resolve will be a wonderful complement to the leadership of Leon Panetta (chief of staff )… I look forward to working with her in this new capacity.”

Leon Panetta added, “In looking for a new deputy, I sought someone with the intelligence, toughness, and good humor needed to manage the White House. Evelyn has all of these in abundance. If I have learned one thing in working with her, it’s this: she gets the job done. For some time she has been a leader of this White House staff, and I know that she will continue to provide the leadership, integrity, and discipline needed in this job.”

Lieberman backed up that billing, quickly becoming known as a fair yet exacting manager, esteemed mentor, and steadfast source of wisdom.

Her unique combination of character traits stem from childhood: “I grew up with two older brothers who always wanted me to act like a boy,” she said. “That taught me to act a little differently—maybe a little tougher—than other girls. My brothers have always helped me understand things. My brother Ralph has since died, but during my years in government, I’d call my brother Haskel and ask for his thoughts on certain things. I still do. He gives good advice.”

Telling the American Story

In 1997, Lieberman jumped at the chance to take on an important new assignment: director of Voice of America (VOA) radio. VOA, the official external broadcast institution of the United States federal government, is the largest international nonmilitary broadcast operation in the world, communicating in 52 languages to 93 million people worldwide. Although not widely known within the United States, VOA is essential to promoting the ideals of freedom and democracy to people across the globe. It was an assignment that Lieberman cherished, given her family’s immigrant history.

“In 1942, the first words that went out on VOA were, ‘The news may be good; the news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth.’ And that’s what VOA does. It has great influence in so many ways,” said Lieberman, who noted that VOA’s popular jazz hour program with Buffalo’s own Willis Conover—who passed away in 1996—was responsible for decades of widespread goodwill toward America simply because of the music he played.

Two years later, Lieberman was recruited by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to become the first-ever under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

At the swearing-in ceremony for the newly created position, Albright said about Lieberman, “No one is better at using the right technology to get the right information to the right people at the right time. And no one understands more fully that telling America’s story is a full-time, long-term, grassroots challenge.”

As a State Department representative, Lieberman met with journalists and members of nongovernmental organizations around the world and discussed both sides of current issues. Her task was to share the American story in a genuine, respectful way.

“Madeleine Albright called America the ‘indispensible nation,’ and I think that’s correct,” said Lieberman. “We do have a responsibility around the globe, and we need to treat people with courtesy and respect. We need to try to understand another person’s point of view and not just make a decision in a vacuum. We need to set an example of democratic government without arrogance. In my job as under secretary, I was able to recognize opposing ideas, and that was a great advantage. It allowed us to learn a lot about others.”

Since 2002 (with a brief leave of absence to serve as chief operating officer of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential election campaign), Lieberman has drawn on her experience in government to continue to tell the American story through the Smithsonian Institution.

“People like stories, and the Smithsonian is the nation’s storyteller. We don’t just show you the object; we present the story behind the object,” said Lieberman. “To tell that story, you must surprise people, make connections. The Smithsonian provides a great mix of history and popular culture—and a way to connect the story of America with our own lives.”

Lieberman knows the importance of connecting America’s story with the story of our own lives. Her life has been the quintessential American life, blessed with the guidance of a strong mother, a sound public education, the will to make the world a better place, and the freedom to turn her aspirations into reality.

“In truth, I’ve been incredibly lucky. The life I’ve been given has been a huge gift,” said Lieberman. “Here’s this poor girl from Brooklyn who has had extraordinary opportunities and great encouragement from others. And I believe it’s my responsibility to provide that same encouragement to others, especially young women. Marian Edelman said that ‘service is the rent we pay for living.’ I think that says it all.”

A Life of Service

Evelyn S. Lieberman, ’66, has led a remarkable life in public service.

2002–present: Director of communications and external affairs, Smithsonian Institution
1999–2001: Under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, U.S. Department of State
1997–1999: Director of Voice of America
1993–1997: Assistant to the president and White House deputy chief of staff; deputy assistant to the president and White House deputy press secretary for operations; assistant to the chief of staff in the Office of the First Lady.
1988–1993: Press secretary for Senator Joseph Biden Jr.
1980–1988: Director of public affairs, Children’s Defense Fund
1976–1980: Communications director, National Urban Coalition
1973–1976: Public relations director, Housing Opportunities Council
1971–1973: Science librarian, Georgetown University
1966–1971: English teacher, Hicksville High School, Hicksville, New York